In Depth

Buying a used car: avoiding the pitfalls

There are several potential pitfalls to be wary of when buying a used car. But all can be avoided if you know how

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Many people are put off from buying a used car by the potential pitfalls that can come with the purchase of such a vehicle. You may be worried about getting a car that has previously been stolen, damaged or written off, or one that develops problems that are expensive and inconvenient to fix. You may also wonder if you're getting good value for money overall. Fortunately, it's possible to avoid many of the most common pitfalls by taking some sensible precautions and making some simple checks on any car you're considering buying.

Possibly the biggest concern for a used-car buyer is the possibility of buying a car that has been stolen or that has outstanding finance payments to be made on it, meaning that even if you've taken possession of the car, you're not the legal owner and will be left out of pocket when the car is reclaimed. It's extremely rare to be faced with this situation if you're buying a car from a franchised or independent dealership, but you should exercise caution if buying privately through classified ads.

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Always ensure the seller's name and address matches what's on the car's paperwork, and always meet them at their home address - not somewhere like a car park or motorway services. You can get further reassurance by paying for a car history check from someone like HPI or Expedia. This will check the car's registration against industry databases to verify that it's not stolen and no money is owed on it.

The condition of the car itself can also be a concern. Has it been damaged and repaired previously? If an insurance claim was involved, the vendor (whether a private individual or a dealer) is legally required to declare the car's written-off status when selling it. You may wish to avoid such cars entirely, but they can make an attractive bargain in the right circumstances. Read our guide to insurance write-offs for more detail.

You may not feel you have sufficient mechanical knowledge to spot any potential problems with a secondhand car, but there are some simple checks you can make to spot some of the most common problems. See our used car buying checklist for more details of these. Beyond that, ask someone more mechanically-minded that you know to view a car with you, or get in touch with a motoring organisation like the AA or RAC to arrange an inspection by a qualified vehicle engineer (albeit for a fee). No genuine seller should object to a mechanical inspection of a car they're selling – if they do, walk away.

By following the steps outlined above, shopping around and trusting your instincts, it should always be possible to get a great deal on a used car that won't cause you headaches down the line. But for ultimate peace of mind, you can also consider the 'approved used' schemes run by many manufacturers. These usually consist of relatively newer used cars (from a few months to a few years old) being offered for sale through the manufacturer's franchised dealerships.

The exact benefits vary from brand to brand, but cars like this will have had all the checks described above carried out and frequently undergo a thorough inspection before being put on sale. They're often offered with warranties and breakdown cover and can sometimes be exchanged for another car of equivalent value if you're not fully satisfied within a certain period of time. Although these aren't the cheapest used cars you'll find, it can be worth paying a little extra in order to minimise the risk of issues in the long run.

Take our quick survey on cars for a chance to win one of three £50 John Lewis vouchers

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